Players parlay a jersey trade into a single mom's dream
Typically when NFL players bargain to swap jersey numbers, they are the beneficiaries. But Houston Texans Ahman Green and Jason Simmons decided to do something more, and an autistic child and his mom are grateful.
HOUSTON -- Regina Foster, sitting in the elegant, tawny-toned living room of her new home, spontaneously burst into tears. The glistening saline drops nearly exploded from the outside corners of her eyes and ran down her cheeks.This has been happening a lot lately. Foster was describing the feeling of seeing her 7-year-old son, Reggie Freeman, cross the threshold of their Alief-area house a week earlier in a safe, leafy neighborhood. "I was just overwhelmed," Foster said. "He realized this is his home. He didn't have to worry about anything. Reggie was dancing through the house, running. When he wants to go outside, I just unlock the door and he can play in the backyard. "He would walk up to me and pat me on the face and give me a kiss. And I was like, 'He's happy.' "And that was all that mattered." Reggie, who is diagnosed with severe autism, has the mind of a 2-year-old. He cannot speak, except to mimic passages from his favorite movies, "Shrek" and "The Little Mermaid." But suddenly, Reggie and Regina, a 37-year-old single mother, have a future. This is because a grown man wanted desperately to play a game with a familiar number on the front and back of his uniform. Crazy, but in the spirit of this Thanksgiving season, true. "I didn't want to part with 3-0," Houston Texans running back Ahman Green said Tuesday in the bowels of Reliant Stadium. "I couldn't do it. I've already had too much to adjust to this season, personally. Being in a new city, losing my dad [to cancer] -- I didn't want to adjust to that." Green was assigned the No. 30 jersey when he arrived at the University of Nebraska, and after he matriculated to the NFL, first in Seattle and then in Green Bay (where he was named to four Pro Bowls), it became his identity. When he signed a four-year, $23 million contract with Houston during this past offseason, he approached defensive back Jason Simmons, who had worn No. 30 since the birth of the Texans franchise in 2002. The market value for numbers in the NFL is very specific. Redskins running back Clinton Portis paid $38,000 for the No. 26 when he arrived in Washington. Giants quarterback Eli Manning gave punter Jeff Feagles a family vacation for the No. 10. Feagles then had No. 17, which he parlayed into a new kitchen when he traded it to wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
I don't want any money from you. But it's going to cost you.
--Jason Simmons to Ahman Green on selling his Texans No. 30
"[Green] was real apprehensive. When he called, I could hear it in his voice," Simmons said. "I didn't believe it was him on the phone, because he was stuttering. I told him my plan, my vision and he jumped right on board. He said, 'Whatever plan you have, I'm with it.'""I don't want any money from you," Simmons told Green. "But it's going to cost you." Simmons, moved by the generosity of fellow players such as Derrick Brooks, Donald Driver and Warrick Dunn, wanted to find a deserving single parent and use the proceeds of the number swap to buy a home. In the end, Green contributed $20,000, Simmons gave $5,000 and Texans owner Bob McNair matched them to bring the total to $50,000 -- a significant amount in Houston. Both Green and Simmons grew up in Los Angeles and understood the hardships of raising a family under difficult circumstances. Texans director of community relations Regina Woolfolk put the program together and Foster heard about it from her realtor. In her application, she wrote, "Home ownership would give me a piece of the American Dream. Having a permanent residence would provide a solid foundation for Reginald and is critical to his success in therapy and life." Woolfolk helped screen the applicants to five qualifiers and then a pair of finalists. The two players were split on the winner, but Tiffany Simmons broke the tie, overruling her husband.
For Regina, a mortgage broker who could not purchase this home on her salary alone, this was always about Reggie.After some serious scouting work, she found the perfect 1,810-square-foot home. It was only two blocks away from the school Reggie has attended since he was 2 years old. The purchase price in Houston's affordable housing market was a little more than $100,000, so even with taxes and insurance, her 30-year mortgage left her with a monthly payment that's $95 less than what she was paying on her previous 1,100-square-foot apartment. On Nov. 13, the Texans had a ribbon-cutting ceremony and, amid the pomp and circumstance of cheerleaders, team mascot Toro and intense media interest, Regina and Reggie were ecstatic. "When I walked through the door, I still couldn't believe it," she said. "I was overwhelmed that my struggle and my journey was over. Reggie has what he needs. It's a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood, and in a district that can accommodate his special needs." Sponsors rushed to join the story. Reliant Energy will provide a year of electricity to Foster's home, Gallery Furniture supplied furniture for several rooms, Comcast kicked in cable, high-speed Internet and digital phone service and HEB Grocery Company filled her cabinets with food. Public relations-wise, this has been a tough year for the NFL. Michael Vick, Adam "Pacman" Jones and other players have generated their share of bad news. "The headlines are always negative, other than the score," McNair said. "And so, to see something positive like this is different. "We talk to our players about giving back to the community. This was [Jason's] idea, so I was just very proud of him. I thought it was a very ennobling thing to do. I just think it is marvelous." Simmons and Green are genuinely surprised by all the attention they've received. "I don't want to overstate what we did," Simmons said, "but it could really affect their future for the long haul. That's touching." Said Green, "I love it. I can definitely say I've done something to change somebody's life." For her part, Foster is still trying to process the whole thing. "I don't have to leave, and I can afford it," she said, smiling. Later, Reggie buried his face in her dress and hugged his mother. Finally they were home.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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